First Act director Deepa Bhatia: ‘Nothing should come at the cost of childhood’ | Web Series - Hindustan Times
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First Act director Deepa Bhatia interview: ‘Nothing should come at the cost of childhood’

Dec 23, 2023 06:15 AM IST

First Act allows viewers to rethink on how child actors are treated in the industry. Deepa Bhatia says the onus lies on the industry and parents equally.

First Act, which is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, directs its gaze on the lives of child actors in the industry. Over the expanse of 6 episodes, director Deepa Bhatia maintains an empathetic and quietly disturbing look on the reality of parenthood, where a child's foray into acting at such an young age often hides a toxic denial of the parent's idea of success. (Also read: Mona Singh interview: ‘All the work I’ve done this year is because of Laal Singh Chaddha')

Director Deepa Bhatia talks about her show First Act.
Director Deepa Bhatia talks about her show First Act.

In an exclusive chat with Hindustan Times, director Deepa Bhatia talked about the process of making the series- how the tapestry of perspectives that bleed into the show was a decision that developed along the way, and the need of the industry as well as the parents to introspect while dealing with children.

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Tell me a little bit about the origin of First Act. When did you first realize that you wanted to give this story a documentary treatment?

Amol (Gupte, filmmaker) makes films with children, so there was a constant interaction with parents, child actors... people who want to be in this profession. There was a realization that there's a desperate need for people to be in the limelight. Sometimes, does that desire push a little too much? I thought about starting to explore that terrain in a way. Let me start meeting casting directors, let me start meeting parents... let me start going for these auditions and different shoots.

When I started exploring that, I started shooting a lot on my own... just going with my cameraman buddy and we used to just go and capture everything. Then I realized that there's definitely a tapestry that needs to be woven together and presented to an audience.

Then, I was fortunate that Amazon saw merit and they came on board so I could be more detailed and add more depth in exploring the subject. So, it really began with those interactions with those parents when they would meet Amol, and I began to feel that there's something here which is that space between the parents are keen that it's the child's desire to do something like that but it appears to be the parents themselves. That was the genesis of it all.

First Act interweaves multiplicity of experiences from several child actors and their parents. Was there a structure in mind from the beginning?

No. I think we had a certain flexibility. We knew we wanted to do it like a series because I was very sure I wanted to cover a length of time. I didn't want to do a shortcut, because you never know what is actually happened till you spend time. I wanted length... wanted to give it 2-3 years, see things happen. Just be there, watch, see the evolution of things. There was no rush. So that was certain, that I wanted to take my time to do it. I am grateful that Amazon gave me that time. Nobody wanted to take that shortcut.

When you see these little ones start their journey, I thought it would be interesting to inform the narrative with the experiences of those who have been there, and done that. I thought it would make a very interesting marriage between the past and the present, you know. Somewhere, if they tell you this happened to me, you begin to anticipate, or you begin to understand the dangers and the positives of what has been. Like how Darsheel (Safary, star of Taare Zameen Par) speaks about the wonderful time he had with his early success. It was helping me to capture the experiences- good, challenging, bad... whatever word that suits. So, yes I was clear about the past informing the present.

First Act also addresses the insane hours of work that a child actor puts in for a project. Who takes the onus for the rules set by the NCPCR for children is perhaps the necessary question. I want to know your opinion on this.

I think there are 2-3 things here... see the rules are in place... even the shooting rules are there. There's a limit to the number of hours that the children have to be on floor, there's meant to be a break time, a tutor on set. NCPCR guidelines reinforce, and make it a little more stringent... now with their new guidelines. But the government has put the principles and the framework is there. I think it comes to us as a film industry enforcing it. I think we have to make an effort now where we are very conscious of it. Even today when we go to shoot in foreign countries, and we have Indian children, we have to stop in 5 hours. They won't even allow you to take an extra shot of one minute. I have seen in the work that I have done. We follow it became the rules are in place.

I think now that time has come where we become conscious of this and we take ownership. That listen, the child's wellbeing matters. Once you take ownership of this its not that difficult. I think it's about the industry being a little more mindful. Lot of people are very, very kind and careful with children. It's not that this is the rule. A lot of things happen very beautifully, particularly with the bigger production houses who have better resources to take care of the children. It's also about self-governance. You know bachcha hein set pe, apko apna attitude change karna padega (if there's a child on set, one must likewise change their attitude). I have seen it with Amol, where we have done 5 films with children. Not one child has missed a day of school, not one child has been put through an audition. None of them have been on set for more than 4 hours. I think it's not difficult at all. We have done it ourselves, even in a film like Saina, where the challenges are different. Even then nobody ever missed school, nobody ever had to sacrifice their academic and normal life for the project. So I think that is the priority that now has to come from us.

While I was watching First Act, I was just aware about the reflection on what the parents were saying as to what it showed in reality. There's a scene where the parent tells that we are doing the auditions because the child wants it but we see there are so many instances where the child is not willing to do it. I was wondering whether any of the child actor and their parents have seen the show and what was their reaction.

They have all seen it because it's streaming and they are all aware of it. I have a very beautiful relationship with all the children that are part of the show and in fact before it came on air, we were discussing what the stories are. This is what they have told me, this is something which I have not coaxed from anyone. It's out there and the interviews are there. So they know. This is their thought process, and sometimes I think that they feel that if they push the child there will be results. Not all of it comes from a malicious place. It comes from a thinking that, 'Okay, I have to motivate my child and then everything will fall into place.' It's not different from the way we push our children to follow a sport, or to do engineering! We do that as parents, where we force a lot upon our child. We are very comfortable in putting them in their performative pet role.

All my children, they have shared their stories with me, they have trusted me with their narratives. They are aware of what all we are discussing. What we are covering in the show. That part is there, now I just hope that there's a little more sensitivity they show in how much they engage in getting their kids into this profession in a more balanced and controlled way. So I just hope that when they see it, they think. If they can introspect and look at it from that lens to ask, 'How much was necessary?' Nothing should come at the cost of childhood. If you can strike a balance, then it is a very beautiful world to be in. It gives you a chance to dream, to enact. So the key lies in making sure there is a balance.

Lastly, what do you hope audience- not just the parents, but the industry at large, can take away from First Act.

I think the show tells everything about what I want to talk about. If you've been on a set and you have children, we all know how that pans out. There will not be anyone who will say that this has never happened. We know that we tend to push the limits a bit. So for the industry I hope the takeaway is around introspection. This is an age group that has no agency, where there's nobody to speak for them. They are voiceless. Whether they are on a set or whether they are at home with their parents. They cannot often express themselves freely. So I hope the takeaway for the parents is to do things in balance and for the industry is that children on set is a serious priority.

For a general audience, I have been getting that feedback where a lot of people who have watched it have been telling me that it's also about parenting at the end of the day. I find a lot of people are connecting with First Act on that level too. It's not just about child actors, it is also about parent and child. This is the kind of takeaway I have received and it's also what I hope the industry and the parents take from the show.

First Act released on Amazon Prime Video on December 15.

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